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December 2013

12 Years A Slave

It’s a strange thing, that what seems like it must be Steve McQueen’s most personal project feels somehow less true to him than the films that preceded it. Perhaps it’s too early to be ascribing a style to McQueen’s work, but there’s an accessibility to 12 Years A Slave that almost seems designed to make it more palatable to the awards season crowd. And yet it dampens the resolute power with which McQueen commanded Hunger and Shame, like he’s on best behaviour, not to serve the story but to serve the season. This is not, then, the best film of the year. It’s not even Steve McQueen’s best film. But it might be his most likely to resonate.

In the end, we end up with some kind of compromise, in fact, because it’s in the moments when McQueen does discard his restraint that 12 Years A Slave is truly made. When our beleaguered hero is strung up for doing a good job, and McQueen’s shot holds on him, in his agony, for longer than we can bear, and them some. When Michael Fassbender’s demented plantation owner takes the whip to Lupita Nyong’o’s Patsey with such ferocity that we feel it might break the screen. If the approach is somehow more traditional, the effect is no less demanding. Solomon Northup’s 12 years were brief compared to the lifetimes served by those born into bondage, but we can be in no doubt that the acts related had no right to exist for a second.

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The 2013 Top Ten

After a devastating summer of almost total mediocrity I’d nearly given up on 2013. No amount of love for bombast and spectacle could forgive the embarrassing, cynical cash-grabbers we endured during this blockbuster season. But as we reach the end of the year, a lot has changed. I wouldn’t like to make a call on this year’s Best Picture winner right now, because I can think of at least 10 candidates all in with a pretty good shot. If push came to shove I might lean towards my number 10 entry below, and it nearly didn’t make it onto my list. I reserve an honourable mention for Mud, Jeff Nichols’s wonderful ray of light earlier in the summer, which slipped off after a re-viewing of 12 Years a Slave.

My methodology is a little unusual – I want to include the year’s awards stock, but I also want to work off the UK release schedule. I follow my variation of BAFTA rules: any from the 2013 release calendar, plus those that have qualified for BAFTA releasing between Jan 1st and Feb 14th 2014, and excluding any that did a similar qualifier for last year’s awards.

10.12 Years a Slave12 Years A Slave

Steve McQueen has never been closer to an Oscar – nor less Steve McQueen-y – than with 12 Years a Slave. Black history seems to have been the dominating theme of 2013, with Django Unchained (my last number one) leading us into the year. The Butler and the Nelson Mandela biopic Long Walk to Freedom have both been set up to run this awards season too. McQueen’s film outshines them – by far – though it’s safer than his previous artistry. More palatable. I think it might have been higher on my list if it had been similar in tone to McQueen’s previous. Honestly, I feel I learnt more about this world from Django Unchained. But a heart-wrenching narrative, and the outstanding thesping can’t be ignored.

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1: Life on the Limit

Formula 1 documentaries – particularly those with aspirations to reach the big screen – have a pretty tough act to follow after Asif Kapadia’s utterly stunning Senna. I’m not sure I’d touch the subject with a barge-pole. Paul Crowder has taken the opposite approach with 1: Life on the Limit, choosing to dive in and tell the history of the entire sport.

Of course, the overriding theme of Senna and Rush – that this is, or was, an incredibly dangerous pursuit, becomes the thrust of this account also. That’s no bad thing, since it offers incredible context for the risks the subjects of those previous films faced. Though it doesn’t do much to settle my internal debate about whether F1 drivers are brave or mad.

Michael Fassbender’s sparing narration fills in details here and there, but it’s the accounts of those closest to the Formula 1 that really tell the story. Crowder has had access to many key names, though as the stories of new drivers are introduced, a F1 novice like me waits with bated breath for their first talking head, fearing a dark turn.

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Rush

I’d love to love Rush, which has found a place on many critics’ Top 10s. But, watching it again, the problems I had on release still stand. Set aside some terrific work from Hemsworth and Brühl and you’re left with a perfectly plain sporting rivalry movie. I’ve seen it before. It was their strong friendship that made Hunt and Lauda’s professional competition so fierce. That’s the side of the story I’d have wanted to examine…

Rush: An Observation

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

It is, too.

Justin Chadwick’s retelling of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography offers a 140-minute slog through the South African revolutionary’s life highlights, tells us nothing about the man we didn’t already know, and leaves us altogether unenlightened. It’s a common problem with biopics of famous figures, but here it seems all the more damaging. It may be a rare case of the man being greater than the legend.

Try as he might, Idris Elba cannot channel the enigmatic mix that made Mandela so captivating, and so much ground is covered that the film slides into the common biopic pitfall of rushing through events. Mandela talks to Winnie for the first time in one scene; in the next they are getting married.

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All is Lost

The economy with which J.C. Chandor constructs All is Lost is impressive. An opening monologue is really all we hear from Robert Redford’s wayward seafarer over the film’s 106 minutes, as he navigates an increasingly desperate sequence of events onboard a sailboat.

And that economy stretches beyond dialogue: we learn precious little about this man other than that he has a recreational familiarity with sailing. We don’t learn his name and, by journey’s end, we may not even be sure what happened to him.

I’m wont to be weary of such stoicism. So often, ambiguity disguises poorly realised storytelling; the answers aren’t given because they don’t exist. But this is smarter. The answers are irrelevant, and the themes are primal. All is Lost concerns that most basic of life’s drives: survival. Its execution turns the potentially mundane into the effortlessly gripping. We’ve seen this story before – one of the best films of the year, Gravity, is a version of it – but Chandor dares to construct it so far from convention, and, surprisingly, it resonates come closer to home in the process.

Your read on the film’s climax will be your own, and may or may not tell you something about yourself. You might see God’s hand in the challenges thrown down for Redford’s character, or you might see a man with a run of incredibly luck. Whichever way you choose to go, All is Lost will let you lead. Sheep may wish to look elsewhere.

In a film this ambiguously withholding it’s a surprise we’re given a movie star to follow. How much Robert Redford’s star lights our journey is unclear – perhaps the man we’re following isn’t such a stranger after all – but there’s a certain sense that his familiarity helps us root for him. In any case, he doesn’t let us in much. Chandor favours longer shots, observing as his character goes about the business of survival, rarely making much of his emotion, and rarely giving us a sense of how much trouble he believes himself to be in. These, again, are decisions for us to make.

Chandor’s debut was the Manhattan-locked financial talkie Margin Call, released a couple of years ago, which couldn’t be further removed from this sophomore effort. On the strength of All is Lost, I can’t wait to see where he takes us next.

All Is Lost is in UK cinemas on December 26th.